What's the best advice for an opera first-timer?

8th February 2019
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To continue the theme of World Opera Day, we also sat down for a chat with guide Barnaby Rayfield and asked what advice he had for anyone who is debating experiencing their very first opera, among other things...

1) Can you remember the moment you first fell in love with opera?

Yes, when I was about 8 our family finally got a VHS player (the last people in our road!) and we rented Amadeus. It was the Don Giovanni statue scene in it that punched me straight between the eyes. I watched that bit again and again. My Dad then got the whole opera from the library for me and a couple of years later I saw Don Giovanni live at the Coliseum. For ages I only listened to Mozart, then some Verdi and finally I fell in love with Puccini when I was 15. It was from seeing that extraordinary 1992 TV film of Tosca that I had taped. Unlike most people, it wasn’t a live experience that grabbed me. I lived in rural Britain near Basingstoke… Recordings were my lot before moving to London. I could have done with Andante Travels when I was a kid!

2) What can a guest on one of our Opera Tours expect from the experience and what do you hope they get out of it?

Hard to give a short answer, but in general on these tours an opera should be a thrilling end to a well-balanced day of excursions and fine food but, remember, the pleasures are different in each place. Take Wexford, where the absurd joy is watching this tiny, friendly, fishing town with its bracing weather and unpretentious mix of pound shops and fine restaurants come together and put on three large scale operatic rarities. The singing is usually stunning, the 19th century obscurity worth hearing and the staging either brilliant or boo-inducing. The audiences are some of the best mixed and passionate and as the operas there are so rare, we are all usually in the same boat. The acoustic is also mind blowing, like wearing the most perfect headphones in the theatre.

Now, clear acoustics are not what you go to Verona’s opera for. Verona is where you fall in love sitting in that vast arena and, as it grows dark, you are lit by thousands of candles held by the audience on the steps, which are still warm from the sun that day. Plus, they leave the sets lying around the streets in the daytime, which I find hilarious. You understand Italy’s relationship to opera better in Verona than anywhere else. The quality’s good and they generally pick suitably big famous works of grand opera to utilize that space. Both tours contain great landscapes, great food and great opera but in completely different ways.

3) What’s the best advice you can give an opera first-timer?

Don’t worry, it's just a musical with a bigger orchestra and an unearned sense of cleverness and entitlement in some of the audiences! Opera exists for the same reason musicals, hip-hop and pop songs exist: we sometimes have feelings that are too big to be spoken, so we have to burst into song. That's all it boils down to. You don't need to speak any German or Italian to understand a character's plight from the music and vocal expression. And remember, opera isn't one thing just as cinema or books aren't one thing. Just as you'd expect a very different night out watching either Schindler's List, Mary Poppins Returns or Casablanca, a violent political opera like Don Carlos is very different experience from a sweet, airheaded rom-com like Donizetti's Girl of the Regiment. You don't need to do much research apart from to find out a little about the operas on offer, storyline-wise. They are not all about women dying from consumption. I wouldn't take a child to it, but a pervy, depraved and biblically inspired opera like Salome might be just the right inroad for a newcomer, as it's only 100 minutes long and never dull. But don't worry, on our tours, the mix of connoisseur and curious newcomer is well-balanced, and we can guide all knowledge levels easily.

4) You often hear people say that they can’t understand the words being sung by performers… Should they be able to? Does it matter?

Well, there are two aspects to this question. Yes, words matter hugely. However, technology has saved the day in the form of surtitles. Now, you don't need to take a full translated libretto with you to understand what they are singing about. They even have surtitles at English National Opera where they sing in English anyway, which renders their remit slightly redundant! This leads to the second point, that be it in English or Italian, one can rarely hear the text that clearly in any music. Acoustics matter a lot in this regard and today's singers do often favour a smooth vocal line over clear crisp diction. However, if you do not speak a word of the language, a good singer should be able to convey the feeling and meaning of their text. In Mozart or Verdi operas, the music carries as much as the narrative as the words. You'll notice in singer-led eras like Baroque opera and Belcanto (early 19th century Italian opera) a slight disconnect between what the music is doing and what the words are saying, but it is just a different form of expression. So, in short, surtitles are your friend and the opera singer has to be able to sell the song, regardless of whether you speak the language they are singing in or not.

5) Opera used to be considered a pastime for the elite only. Is that still the case, in your opinion?

Unfortunately, opera – especially in Britain – can't ever shake this reputation off. It's not entirely justified. If you go to a sold-out Covent Garden performance, you will see both the the super-rich (or those on bankers' hospitality) in the stalls and boxes, and the permanently skint people like me in jeans filling up the standing areas or restricted view upper slips. Some are there for the glitz and 'experience' regardless of what's playing. Scruffy nerds like me are there for the work/singer/conductor. The elite tag can't be just to do with money. Opera is now much cheaper than many a football match and although you can spend a fortune on good seats, there are bargains to be had higher up. Opera is expensive to put on: you are watching three armies of skilled people (orchestra, stage technicians and chorus) at work, even before you get to the conductor and star soprano. So, in one way, you can argue opera is a bargain at any price, given the resources. Cinema screenings have given opera a much-needed visibility in the modern-day high street, but so many people are unjustly afraid of entering opera houses (or concert halls) even when their tax pays for the theatre's upkeep. I wish opera wasn't so class-ridden. The snobbery is fed from both directions, and while I'm on my lefty soapbox rant, I blame state education for not empowering all people with exposure to classical music and opera, and reminding everyone that all the arts are for everyone. Certainly in Germany and Italy, opera is just 'there' and less of a big deal about what it says about you and your class. On the continent, it is good for a politician to be seen going to the opera, but here it is the kiss of death for one's populist career.

6) Forgotten operas are now being staged by many companies. Are they really worth resurrecting or were they unpopular for good reason?

Of course they are worth resurrecting. Popular recognition in culture isn't a fair, linear meritocracy. We all know or love something that was a B-side or written before the creator was famous. Some rubbish becomes a hit and some gems are ignored through bad timing, saturation or whatever. Opera is no different, it's just that audiences tend to stick to what they know and houses are therefore scared to rock the boat and lose money. Still, you would never ask this of any other art form: Should we bother looking at Picasso's early sketches? Why watch Martin Scorsese's flop, The King of Comedy? We seem so open to rare works of theatre or rediscovered writing by great authors, so it feels a shame we don't naturally explore other works by composers we love. My most serious concern about opera is how minuscule the repertoire is: 10 Verdis, 5 Puccinis, 7 Mozarts, 2 Massenets, 1 Leoncavallo. All those famous composers wrote tonnes more, yet they rarely get an outing. Opera won't survive if people keep sticking to Madam Butterfly or Carmen. Explore Puccini's Edgar or Bizet's tuneful one act comedies, like Don Procopio or Dr Miracle. Don't get me wrong, you'll get some real duds, some by major composers, others by people deservedly forgotten. But, if it wasn't for the dedicated musical archaeologist and, subsequently, financially deranged opera house, we would be denied masterpieces like Franco Faccio's Hamlet (thought lost for 150 years) or Massenet's Le Mage. Opera is expensive to put on and the majority of audiences are wary of what they haven't heard of, but we have to put rarities into the diet. You don't know what you're missing.

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